By Fred Weir, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Russian forces appear poised to seize Chechnya's capital city after inflicting severe losses on its rebel defenders. But few political analysts in Moscow believe that planting the Russian flag over Grozny's ruins will bring an end to the war.
"The taking of Grozny has been expected for some time, and it is the signal for the beginning of a full-scale guerrilla war," says independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "The Chechens are leaving Grozny because it has served its purpose for them as a useful battlefield for inflicting casualties on the Russians. Now they will head for the mountains to regroup and plan a new offensive."
Though the Russians will claim victory, the battle of Grozny exacted a very high price from them. Even by their own account, the Russian military has lost hundreds of men in the savage street-by-street fighting over the past month.
Some 2,000 Chechen fighters had been holding Grozny's heavily fortified city center against a fierce Russian infantry assault. That latest bombardment on Grozny, which began Christmas day, was backed up by almost constant air and artillery support.
Reports from Chechnya and official Russian military sources agree that the rebels began pulling out of the doomed city on Jan. 31, while Russian troops reported advancing through the city center.
"The withdrawal was carried out in an orderly fashion," Chechen government spokesman Movladi Udugov said. "There is not a single fighter left in Grozny."
A rebel Web site (www.kavkaz.org), run by loyalists of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, also reported the pull out Feb. 1. It said that two Chechen generals, Aslambek Ismailov and Khunkarpasha Israpilov, were killed in the final stage of the city's defense. Grozny's rebel mayor, Lecha Dudayev, died in combat over the weekend, it said.
Other sources said Mr. Basayev himself was seriously wounded when the car he was riding in struck a land mine in the outskirts of Grozny.
But there was no sign that any of the estimated 15,000 to 40,000 civilians trapped in Grozny had been able to flee.
State TV showed footage of the Russian tricolor flying over Minutka Square, the fiercely contested gateway to central Grozny.
"There is a great psychological breakthrough," the Kremlin's new press spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhemsky, told a press conference Feb. 1. He said there was still intense fighting in the city, but that some rebels had tried to escape over the previous day and had been driven into mine fields and bottled up by federal forces.
"We expect further attempts by those who are on the small patch of Grozny still controlled by the militants to break out every day and night," he added.
Russia has many reasons to put the best face on a Grozny victory. Foreign ministers of several Western nations were in Moscow for a Middle East peace conference Feb. 1.
And in those meetings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeated the US position that the campaign was excessively brutal and warned Russia it risked international isolation.
But Acting President Vladimir Putin countered international criticisms. "It is unacceptable to cancel such basic principles of international law as national sovereignty and territorial integrity under the slogan of so-called 'humanitarian intervention,' " Putin told the delegates.
He did not mention Chechnya by name, but he was clearly referring to the West's strong criticism of Russia's military campaign against Muslim fighters in the breakaway republic. Moscow accuses the fighters of terrorism and other crimes, and says the West should not interfere in Russian internal affairs.
Putin and popularity
Mr. Putin, who faces elections on March 26, has seen his popularity tumble for the first time since he was appointed prime minister last August. According to the VTSIOM agency, his public approval rating fell from 56 percent to 49 percent last week, largely due to bad news from the Chechnya war front. The appearance of victory may get his momentum going again.
And in private meetings with his Western counterparts, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has responded to criticism about the mounting civilian toll in Chechnya with assurances that the war is "winding down." The fall of Grozny may help cement this impression.
But even Russian analysts who support the war effort doubt the taking of Grozny will have much military impact. "It's a small victory, and it will improve the morale of our troops while dispiriting the bandits," says Vladimir Kuzar, an infantry specialist with Krasnaya Zvezda, the official Russian military newspaper. "But obviously the Chechens will not stop fighting because of this. Now we must move our army into the foothills and mountains in the south, and confront them there. This is going to be a long war."
Other analysts warn the events of the previous 1994 to 1996 Chechnya war are repeating themselves. In that conflict Russian forces took Grozny after a similar long and bloody assault. But they never managed to fully control the city, and the rebels swooped down from the hills to snatch it back from them in a lightning August 1996 offensive.
"Our generals don't seem to learn that taking territory in a guerrilla war is meaningless," Mr. Felgenhauer says.
"The point is to destroy the enemy's strength and will to resist. The taking of Grozny has contributed little to that goal," Felgenhauer adds.
*Material from the wire services was used in this report.